Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Finding Southern Hospitality At SOHO

Nolan Konkoski first entered my gastronomic world view earlier this year at the Dinner In The Dark Special Edition event that was held to raise money for a scholarship in memory of Matthew Finkel. At the time, SOHO Kitchen & Bar was just an idea that had yet to come to fruition. Regardless, Nolan's concept of "Southern Hospitality" food was warmly embraced by the crowd that evening and many of my fellow food enthusiasts were greatly looking forward to the addition of this unique concept to the Cleveland dining scene.

Fast forward a few months later when I learned that not only was the Cuban-inspired Lelolai closing, but also SOHO had found its home at the same location as the failed bakery and cafe. While there was still no immediate opening date scheduled, I did manage to keep it simmering on a rear burner, ready to descend upon the restaurant once the doors officially opened for business. Which was exactly what happened several nights ago on a Friday night.

Not knowing what kind of crowd to expect on a Friday night in a recently opened restaurant, I called at around 5:30 PM to see if it would be possible to make a reservation for the same night. I was a little surprised that it was no problem at all to get a four-top table at either 7:30 or 8:00 PM -- my choice. I went with 7:30 PM and actually left my real last name to hold the reservation. I normally try to avoid reservations in order to not tip off the restaurant that I'm coming in for a review, but since there would be four of us tonight, I wanted the security of knowing there would be a spot ready for us when we arrived.

SOHO was located at 1889 West 25th Street, Cleveland, OH 44113 and can be contacted at 216-298-9090. Parking was wherever you can find it and fortunately since our four-top came in one car, we needed to only find a single parking spot. SOHO currently does not have valet (at least they didn't that night).

Once inside, the hostess promptly seated us at a table by the front window and left us with the menu to browse:

SOHO Dinner Menu
I liked the fact that the entire menu fit onto one side of the page (the rear was cocktails and other beverages). The menu seemed nicely divided into several sections with each grouping having five or six selections. It didn't feel overwhelming, but at the same time, there was a decent number of choices to fit any appetite.

After our server introduced herself and took our initial drink and appetizer orders, a complimentary basket of fresh biscuits appeared at our table:

Biscuits, Butter, Jam
Paired with the warm biscuits was a scoup salted honey butter as well as peach preserves. One of the diners at my table noted that the biscuits had a "floury" gritty mouthfeel to them. As far as I could tell, however, the biscuits were cooked all the way through. While I could see his point, it didn't particularly bother me too much. The salted honey butter wasn't particularly noteworthy, but the peach preserves were fruity and just a bit sweet, but not too much.

While the four of us at the table knew we would be sharing tastes all around, we each ordered an appetizer to start. I ordered the Crawfish and Crab Fritters:

Crawfish and Crab Fritters
I'm not sure why these were called "fritters" as they weren't battered before frying. I suppose we are all guilty of casually using words in a way that can be deceptive, but what was put in front of me were crab cakes, pure and simple. They were placed atop a spicy slaw and then drizzled with both a green onion aioli as well as a blended pepper coulis.

I liked the slight spice to the slaw. I disliked the raw red onion flavor -- it was too strong and overpowered the dish. The crab cakes were just the tiniest bit overcooked, but had good flavor and worked well with the sauces on the plate. The caramelization on the cakes added a depth and intensity to the crab.

My compatriot across the table ordered the Low and Slow Lamb Belly:

Low and Slow Lamb Belly
Interestingly, the lamb was incredibly mild and didn't have the gamey flavor that lamb often exudes. The finished protein had been topped with collard greens and Benne seeds (aka sesame seeds). As can be expected from the belly of any animal, it was fatty and unctuous, but not over the top. The lamb was very flavorful and the collard greens on top added a brightness to an otherwise heavy dish.

The third appetizer we ordered was truly a southern staple, Pimento Cheese:

Pimento Cheese
Served with homemade BBQ potato chips, this was the clear winner so far (not that the others had been bad). The chips alone was absolutely fantastic and all of us agreed that they were dangerously addictive. I have to admit that I've never had pimento cheese before, but SOHO's version was nicely balanced between the small cheese curds and lots of tasty cheesy flavor. I was a little apprehensive about how much pimento cheese would safely transfer on the very thin chips, but there were no breakages from plate to mouth.

Our appetizers now finished, we moved on to the entrees. First up was my entree, the Smothered Pork Chops:

Smothered Pork Chops
Served with jalapeno hushpuppies, baby broccoli, and a rich brown gravy, this was a substantial dish. When my server suggested that the kitchen preferred to cook the pork medium, I was in complete agreement. While I will concede that the restaurant was too dark to tell if the interior of the chops were pink, I can tell you that the meat was rather tough and chewy. Not leather-like, but not particularly pleasant either. The hushpuppies were tasty, but a bit overfried and dried out. The gravy, again being tasty, was a bit one-note and a mixture of too thin in spots (which I am guessing came from juices coming out of the pork) and too thick in others. This dish was decent.

My dining compatriot across from me ordered the daily special, the St. Louis-style Ribs:

St. Louis Ribs
Accompanying his full pound of heavily spice-rubbed ribs was a potato salad. While I didn't have a chance to try the potato salad, my friend did share a rib bone with me. The meat was hot, but also a bit dry and the rub was very intense, to the point where it dominated my palate and the pork flavor was a bit lost.

The clear entree winner tonight was the Shrimp and Grits that the person to the right of me ordered:

Shrimp and Grits
Photo used with permission by Edsel Little. Original located here.

Sadly, I didn't take a picture of it at the time, but fortunately, my friend Edsel did. The shrimp were HUGE and cooked very well. The grits were creamy, corny, and seasoned nicely. As you can see from the picture above, the dish came with asparagus and mushrooms and added a nice complementary flavor. All of us agreed that this was the standout dish tonight.

When it came time for dessert, the four of us decided to split one. Here was the dessert menu for the evening:

SOHO Dessert Menu
There weren't a whole lot of choices on the dessert menu, but having just opened recently, I'm willing to concede that SOHO might want to start small and work their way up. We collectively decided to split the Crispy Beignets:

Crispy Beignets
Of course, when I think of beignets, the first thing to come to mind are the light, fluffy, pillow-like treats served at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. While tonight's version was similarly covered in powdered sugar, sadly the comparison between the two versions ends there. While still warm, these had been overfried and were a bit dry and lacked the tenderness I was hoping to find. The blackberry jam was a nice choice for a dip, but there were still smalls bits of blackberry seeds that had survived the straining process. This gave the jam a grainy mouthfeel for which I didn't particularly care.

I would like to mention that the service was very good. Our server was knowledgeable, prompt, and did a good job keeping us up to date on our order throughout the meal. One of my tablemates didn't care for the first cocktail she received and our server wasted no time in whisking it away and bringing her something else to replace it. As far as the service goes, SOHO gets a resounding recommendation.

Overall, however, for a meal that was over $40 with tip and tax, I was a tad disappointed. Of the four of us at the table tonight, one doesn't feel the need to ever return and the other three of us (me, included), felt that the food was just average tonight. I've heard wonderful things about the food, and I'm hoping that tonight was just a fluke. That being said, based on the strength of the meal we had tonight, I'm going to marginally give you a recommendation to check it out for yourself. I am looking forward, however, to returning for another meal at some point in the future to see if SOHO has managed to work out the kinks.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dinner In The Dark - Noodlecat!

Holy moly! I just realized that I haven't written a blog entry about a Dinner In The Dark charity event since April earlier this year. That means that five of these fantastic dinners have come and gone (one month was canceled and another month was skipped due to low attendance) since I have mentioned this wonderful Cleveland-based organization seeking to not only bring together some of northeast Ohio's best chefs, but also help a local charitable cause in the process. While one of the founding members, Ellis Cooley (who was the chef at AMP 150), has left the Cleveland area to return to his home in Florida, he remains a part of the group along with co-founders Brian Okin and Jeff Jarrett (who interestingly enough now presides as chef at AMP 150). The trio has also recently given their website a face lift to feature events, news, bios on the participating chefs, and the pictures that yours truly has taken at prior dinners.

Tonight's dinner was held at Noodlecat, Jonathon Sawyer's recently opened Japanese and American noodle house mashup. This time around, the dinner was being held to benefit Michael Cantu, a Brecksville young man who earlier this year was involved in a gymnastics accident that left him in a wheelchair with many months of hospital stays.

Since the dinner was on Monday night, parking was a breeze. Since there were no downtown events happening that night, the valet next to Lola Bistro on East 4th was only $8 and the walk from the valet to the front of Noodlecat took all of five minutes. For those unfamiliar with the location of Noodlecat, it is just west of the House of Blues on Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland.

Once inside the restaurant, my friend Tami and I were quickly shown to our empty table, having arrived prior to the others in our dining party. I quickly got out the necessary camera gear for tonight's shindig and started to get set up. Here was a shot of the front of the menu:

While I know you haven't seen that menu in some time, gentle reader, a lot of the same players involved now are those that have been with the group since the beginning. Probably the one major addition to those sponsoring the event is Fat Casual BBQ, who graciously provided the staff meal for those involved in pulling off this event.

Flipping the menu over, the back contained the usual list of chefs and symbols cryptically suggesting what each course would be:

All were pretty straightforward except for the guy in the lederhosen for the dessert course. Knowing that Cory Barrett used to be the pastry chef for Lola Bistro, we knew that whatever it turned out to be, it would certainly be very creative and tasty.

Having finished examining the menu, Tami and I turned out attention to the platter of sliced bread sitting in the middle of the table:

While most DITD events have started with an amuse bouche, we couldn't figure out if this was a pre-amuse or this was the main event. It turned out that the bread with herbed olive oil was either the amuse or perhaps just a pre-dinner nibble and there was no official amuse. Either way, mix tasty bread with tasty oil and my mouth was definitely ready for what was to come next.

To go along with our pre-dinner nibble, Joe Deluca and Tobin Northrup sent out a cocktail called Winter Eve Warmer:

Served hot, this mulled wine had all of the warming spices from the Thanksgiving and Christmas season infused into it. There was just enough in the glass to give you a warm feeling inside while the first course made its way into the dining room.

Speaking of which, the first course was Chris Hodgson's (from Dim and Den Sum, Hodge Podge, and the soon-to-be opened Hodge's) and was a play on a "Wendy's Spicy Chicken Sandwich":

The patty consisted of a combination of sous vide and ground chicken thighs mixed with foie gras, seared on the flat top. It was served on a toasted bun with a waterlily leaf, roasted jalapeno and orange blossom aioli and a sliced grape tomato. When assembled, this was quite the mouthful, but a tasty mouthful at that. The foie gras had done its job of adding lots of moisture to the patty and when taking bite after bite, it was imperative to keep the slider over the plate, lest you wear the juice. The sandwich also had a very subtle spice, which was enjoyed by everyone sitting at my table.

The second course came to us from Ben Hsu (from Sushi 86):

The sushi "sandwich," as Chef Hsu put it, was actually seared Albacore tuna sushi done in an Osaka style presentation (where the sushi is made by pressing it into a box), Ghost Chile aioli, shredded daikon radish, wakame jelly, celery leaf, and scallions to garnish. I had never tried Ghost Chiles before, but I do know they are the hottest chile peppers on the planet. I was intrigued to see how well the chef had controlled the heat.

I took a bite with a little bit of each component in the dish and my mouth was rewarded with culinary bliss. Chef Hsu completely knocked this out of the ballpark. The fish was tender, perfectly seared on just the exterior. The Ghost Chile aioli was creamy with just a hint of spice, the wakame jelly added a bit of seaweed flavor and the gelatin helped to cool off the spiciness from the sauce. This was absolutely delicious. I would have been a very happy man with four more courses of the exact same dish.

Fortunately, for me, more delectable goodness was on its way. Specifically, the third course from Brian Goodman (of Greenhouse Tavern fame):

Jonathon Sawyer has been prepping himself to serve a meal at the James Beard house in the near future. He and Brian turned to Richard Olney's Souffle a la Swissesse to accomplish their task. The cheese souffle was cooked well on the outside and managed to stay tender, moist, and steaming on the inside. The souffle was nestled in a bowl of pureed mushrooms and chestnuts and was garnished with fresh thyme. This was truly an umami "bomb," if you will, with the flavors of mushroom, thyme, and cheese predominating. It was also incredibly good and more than one of us at the table wished it wasn't so verboten to lick the bowl in a public restaurant.

Normally at this point in the meal, an intermezzo is served to clear the palate from the previous courses and to prepare the palate to receive the final dishes in the meal. While an intermezzo is usually something slightly sweet and acidic (like sorbet), in sticking with the theme of Noodlecat, a plate of pickled vegetables appeared at our table for us to share:

Starting at twelve o'clock on the plate, you have pickled beets, pickled turnips, pickled pumpkin rind, pickled radishes and the small ramekin in the middle held kimchee, that wonderful pungent and spicy fermented cabbage that Koreans contributed to the global culinary scene. Each was good, but I particularly liked the pickled turnips because they had a nice balance between the acidity of the vinegar and a natural sweetness.

The fourth course was presented to us by Scott Kuhn (from Washington Place Bistro & Inn):

The scallop had been encrusted with dried porcini powder before being seared to a beautiful medium-rare. The scallop was soft and tender and a delight to eat, although mine was a touch on the aggressively seasoned side. That being said, the Israeli couscous that was served with the scallop was a bit underseasoned, so perhaps they were meant to be eaten together. Having only one type of mushroom on this plate was definitely not enough, so in addition to the porcini, sauteed Chanterelle mushrooms made an appearance as well as impossibly-thin shaved black truffles.

For our final savory course, Brian Reilly (from Noodlecat) gave us a soul-satisfying Japanese noodle dish with a twist:

This was the more traditional Japanese component of tonight's fifth course -- fresh Ohio City Pasta udon in a kombu broth with Enoki mushrooms, softened kombu, and scallions.

The American twist came to us in a Chinese take-out box:

Inside was a battered and fried halibut with nori on a stick -- Americans love anything fried on a stick after all -- sitting on top of micro-greens. After combining the two components, I ended up with this:

By the time we were served this course, many at my table were ready to cry "Uncle!" because we were so full. Some ate a little, some ate it all, I ate about half. I ate all of the crispy and juicy halibut, which was cooked to perfection. The pasta served tonight was a little bit flatter than regular udon and after much debate amongst my tablemates, a table-hopping Jonathon Sawyer finally put it to rest by asserting that it was indeed a form of udon. The noodles were tender while still retaining a bit of toothsomeness. The broth was characteristically Japanese, light with great depth of flavor. Overall, this was a lovely dish, even if I didn't finish it.

Our final taste of the evening came from Cory Barrett, former pastry chef at Lola Bistro and now executive chef:

It turned out that the gentleman in lederhosen on the menu actually referred to a citrus Bavarian cream on top of an almond spongecake all topped with a white chocolate plaquette. Also on the plate was a lime curd, Mardarin orange and ginger beer sherbet, and a cardamom crumble. Garnishing the sorbet was a single red sorrel leaf. This was the PERFECT way to end the meal. The dessert was both sweet and tart and easily cleansed the palate after so much other food had preceded it. The cardamom crumble almost had a peppery spice to it that was a wonderful foil for the sweetness. Cory may no longer be practicing the pastry arts on a daily basis, but he has lost none of his skills at balancing competing and complimentary flavors.

Our three hour culinary journey at an end, we packed up our bags and headed out into the chilly Cleveland air. Before we left, it was announced that next month's Dinner In The Dark event would be held at Rocco Whalen's Fahrenheit in Tremont on Monday, January 16th at 6:30 PM. While tickets for this dinner are the same $65 base price as all the other dinners, with tip, taxes, and fees, it comes out closer to $86. One big difference is that the Fahrenheit dinner only has fifty seats instead of the usual seventy, so if you're interested in going, I'd suggest you get your ticket sooner rather than later.
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